Short Stories

Under the Canopy

November 10, 2014

Under the Canopy

 

The Boston World Adventurers Club bustled with the usual noise, loud arrogant men boasting about one thing or another, planning to explore undiscovered areas of the world yet to be seen by white men. Of course, membership was only open to men of means, their fee exorbitant, each having to pass an extensive muster including proof of exploration with proper documentation and authentication. In truth, the organization demanded nothing less than the warm body of a pygmy or other such proof to substantiate their claims, artifacts and photographs considered in the mix. Wealth was the second most important factor of membership if one had not made a significant mark in the trials of exotic exploration. The club was not so shortsighted as to exclude those who might contribute handsomely to their causes, exploration an expensive hobby when one considered travel and supplies.

There was a recent claim being appraised regarding Murray Feltsten, who maintained to have a primitive from the deepest parts of Africa. As proof he presented the club with a pygmy dressed in scant clothing, speaking gibberish, which seemed only correct given his place of origin. For several weeks the would-be pygmy grunted and babbled unintelligibly supporting Murray’s discovery, eating with his hands and displaying none of the attributes of a civilized society. It worked well until Murray’s prize spoke fluent English from the South while trying to woo a black housemaid, who caught his fancy. The native in question turned out to be a black midget acquired from a plantation in Georgia, the maid quick to report this fact to the club with a promise of better employment elsewhere.

According to the bylaws of the club, Murray was publically humiliated and discredited as a club member, a letter of reprimand following this bogus discovery. The club, however, did not ban him from participation because all agreed it was a clever ploy giving the group a degree of pseudo-entertainment, though not the sort of behavior they would encourage their other members to perpetrate. Ridicule was part of the punishment; jokes were tossed about at Murray’s expense, though his money was still very welcome in the club’s treasury. His credibility soiled beyond any reasonable redemption, Murray sought a remedy his fall from grace with a better plan. He was determined to recapture his honor knowing full well there were few opportunities to do so without the support of his peers.

Murray Felsten, a wealthy man could not tackle a major expedition alone at this point, money was not the only consideration, a support group had to be established. The African previous fiasco had cost him considerably with nothing to show for it except a long stay at a five-star hotel, a brief tour of the wild and a case of dysentery, which hindered his plans to push deeper into the jungle. It was a simple holiday for the idle rich; anyone could do these things given the necessary funds. His short push into the wilds required a group of thirty bearers carrying all the comforts of home, including a chef who prepared gourmet meals.

In the club each member had to provide dues of a considerable sum; professional men and the idle wealthy were afforded the pleasure of membership only to keep their potential projects viable. The monies were used to pay for special projects, acquisitions and exploration should one of the members require additional financing. In this way all could share in the achievements of others if only indirectly.

I, on the other hand, had no such achievements or bags of money; my presence was only accepted as a freelance photographer/journalist for club members. My few possessions were three cameras, one malfunctioning, an ancient automobile consisting of a rusted hulk with four bald tires and a wardrobe of two suits and a heavy coat with miscellaneous practical garments to keep me from freezing during the winter. My vocation provided me with enough to eat once a day, pay my rent at the boarding house and occasionally use public transportation. On good days I might managed two meals if I included the boarding house supper, graciously provided by my charming and widowed landlady.

I pondered my limited status as the opulent men in the main clubroom roared with laughter, refilling their glasses with pricey spirits. I remained on the periphery available when the mood stuck the members for a group photo or photographs of their latest prize, Murray’s discovered fake pygmy for one. The pygmy in question appeared to be reluctant to have his photo taken, tucking his head down to avoid his facial features from being canonized for posterity. He contorted his face whenever the camera came near. For few extra dollars I wrote up their pygmy story and sent it on the to newspaper, who always published it in the society section. My text was often rewritten and my name excluded from publication, regardless how well composed it might be. I later discovered why the pygmy in question was averse to being photographed. He had a criminal record in three states with several outstanding warrants.

 

 

Pondering Options

 

“Australia and the blacks might provide some entertainment, boomerangs and the such,” bellowed a cigar smoking bald man, who was long past his athletic prime. “Silly toy, I suppose; a bit like a dog fetching a stick, I’d say. Why I’ve heard the blacks live wherever they stand, no villages or form of civilization. Inferior race, quite, but worth studying, I’d say.”

“If one must study blacks,” began another man sporting an impressive diamond ring. “Why not Africa, the Congo perhaps? Primitive and naked as jaybirds, that bunch. I suppose one does still have to have some concern for being the culinary event of the evening, cannibals, I’m told. Perhaps the natives only have a taste for missionaries, adventurers too rich for their taste and tough to chew.”

Loud hysterical laughter ensued followed by gasping and coughing as the humorous remark wound to an end. I rarely paid much attention to their inane platitudes, always the same daily banal bantering, poking fun at the native cultures and each other, giving them a purpose and a sense of superiority. It was not restricted to natives; demeaning the lower classes was the other popular sport with these men. Snide comments about the trades and common worker were met with concurrence, all wondering when social change might inflict itself upon them. I doubted they had very much respect for me either as I fit into that last category. My claim to usefulness was simple; I provided a function, diversion and vanity exploitation, nothing more.

“What of the Amazon?” queried a man standing next to the huge marble fireplace? “I understand there are places so deeply hidden from white society only birds and snakes know of the natives living there. The people adjacent to those regions claim there are Indians so silent and secretive; they call them ghost people. Indeed, wouldn’t that be a feather in someone’s cap, capturing a ghost?”

“I wonder how violent these Indians are? Do you suppose they have a taste for white meat, Reggie?” chided the bald man. “Perhaps those heathens will find us more appealing to their pallet than their fellow Africans.”

“If you drink much more Scotch they shall have to take care setting you near the fire lest you burst into flames and char their supper,” replied Reggie removing a cigarette from a gold case. “Adventurer flambé! I like the sound of that.”

There was another titter of laughter but the idea was beginning to sink into their bored, sedentary, predictable lives. Most of the men had never ventured beyond the city except to holiday in Europe or go on safari under the best of conditions. The closet most of them came to actual natives were the blacks raised, all their lives in American cities and those indigenous they treated with complete contempt.

“Good lord!” declared one of the men. “It’s half past three. I have to be fitted for a new topcoat; my present one is becoming shiny in spots, completely unacceptable. I best be on my way before I miss my appointment; the cheeky bugger but does a magnificent job with cloth and needle, a Jew I suspect. Jews are good at things like that, much as the Chinese are adept with laundry, though they do become careless with starch now and then.”

“Starched undies, old chap?” said Reggie flicking an ash in a nearby receptacle. “A little chaffing of the privates, sir? Probably the most excitement you’ve had in awhile.”

Again there was a roar of laughter as each member imagined such a thing, adding small snippets to the joke.

Good byes said, the crowd settled down to another round of drinks and more talk about business and higher profits. Most complained about paying high wages and the threat of unions trying to impose impossible benefits for the workers. There was a certain order to maintain within the classes, workers worked and did not require more than they were getting; it was ridiculous that unions presumed to dictate the way a business should run. But one had to humor these union people or face a minor disruption.

 

My two days a week at the club did not produce very much in the way of revenue for me; it barely helped sustain my slack periods, which were often. I left shortly afterwards to sort out my next story in the city, news of the day if you please. It was good to keep an eye open for a mishap with trolleys or automobiles. A fire might spring up at a laundry giving me an opportunity to catch it with my camera lens. But it was too cold to walk around the city hoping for a chance photo; my room was the better option.

 

 

Masterson House

 

“Good evening, Mr. Merrill,” announced my landlady, Sylvia Masterson. “I pray your day was a good one with this terribly cold weather we are having. I don’t think I can remember it ever being so cold this time of year. Please come, sit by the fire with the others.”

Sylvia Masterson was a pleasant woman in her late twenties. Her husband Alexander Masterson had died several years before, leaving her with the house and a tidy sum in support. She had no family of her own and chose to run a boarding house to supplement her income. Money wasn’t a problem for her; she had more than enough. The boarding house gave her something to do with her days and made her feel useful.

She employed one maid and a rather stout cook, who made simple but tasty meals. The evening repast was provided as part of the board with a Sunday brunch for those who were not otherwise occupied with church or sleeping in late. On a few occasions a luncheon of finger sandwiches might be available in the early afternoon should the mood strike her. Mrs. Masterson’s generosity knew no bounds where her boarders were concerned, each like a family member in a manner.

A few of the other boarders goaded me about her attentiveness towards me, which I did not recognize as such. She was after all a widow and not unpleasant to look at with a tidy sum of money in the bank. Such a handsome, financially secure woman was rare and would make a fine wife, though I was not in the market for one. She could afford me a very comfortable life if I wanted to choose that path; but I wanted to secure my career and stand on my own two feet, not ride on the apron strings of a wealthy widow, tempting as it might be.

All of the guests were men from various walks of life. The only other full-time woman in the house was young Mary, who cleaned and helped the cook, Willa. Willa worked during the daytime hours returning to her home after supper was served. Unlike many women of her class, Mrs. Masterson liked to put her hand in when the meals were being prepared, her small touches adding a personal touch to each meal. I benefited with small additions and larger portions when she was inclined to work with Willa.

Mary was almost invisible, a wraith except when needed to provide assistance. Her slight built and young age did not deter her ability to work hard and long hours a habit of her childhood. She was the first up and the last to bed at night. Her Irish lineage made her plain and serious, no philandering with the boarders or much of a private life outside the house. Her one-day off was Sunday, spent attending church most of the day and praying for something no one was aware of.

I always wondered what a young woman could do all day in church, anyone for that matter. I suppose if one were a sinner, the day might be spent repenting. However, Mary’s lifestyle and dedication left no room for sin. I’m not a Catholic but I can’t find reason to take an entire day to pray when one is as virtuous as this housemaid. Mary will remain a mystery to me while Mrs. Masterson will remain my landlady, though I suspect her wishes may include me in some way.

My room is on the ground floor along with Mrs. Masterson and Mary, who have their rooms closer to the kitchen. Mary’s room is set next to the service porch while Sylvia’s door is opposite mine. My comings and goings are no secret to Sylvia, who likes to keep tabs on me, though I rarely see her leave or enter her own room. It is her job to keep an eye on all of us since there is a rule regarding members of the opposite sex in the house. Lady visitors must remain in the parlor and leave at a respectable time nothing inappropriate taking place during the stay. I have never availed myself of this visitation benefit since there is no one to visit me in the first place.

My financial situation is pretty dismal at times. On a few occasions Mrs. Masterson has extended my time to pay for my room, a condition I do not like to foster. Photographers don’t have steady work unless they are fortunate to work for the newspaper or have a thriving business taking portraits. The first time I came up short she put her hand on my shoulder, looking me in the eye, smiling. She told me not to be concerned and that it was of little bother for her to wait. In her view I was a gentleman; there was no reason to mistrust my intentions to meet obligations.

 

The evening chill in my room made it difficult to relax with any degree of comfort, not that I was in the habit of such comfort coming from a humble background. I often left my door open in order to let warmer air from the hall and kitchen drift into my small sanctum. I did that in order not to bother Mrs. Masterson regarding my errant radiator, its temperamental behavior requiring substantial repair, which I did not wish to foist upon her shoulders. Her patience and kindness should not be rewarded with complaints of an unfriendly heating apparatus.

While waiting for my room temperature to warm ever so slightly I retreated to the living area where a nice fire heated the room, Mary hefting a log onto it every now and then disappearing with equal haste. Some of the boarders were in there reading newspapers and books when I arrived. The library in the house had a lovely selection of classic literature, Mr. Masterson having been a keen reader and collector of fine literature. I enjoyed the library and used it to hone my own incomplete education, which was lacking due to the early necessity of work. Sometimes the guests would strike up a conversation about the local politics and happenings in the city. That was a topic I knew something about, since I spent a lot of time with the newspaper.

“Merrill, I don’t see why you don’t take to Mrs. Masterson,” reported Sandy Nelson, a supervisor at a furniture warehouse. “Hell, she’s still a young woman, pretty spiffy. You could do a lot worse.”

“Sandy I appreciate your encouragement but I’m not the marrying type, not yet that is.”

“I’d think on it myself if she showed me any interest,” he added crossing his legs, fluffing the newspaper in his lap. “A blind man can tell she prefers a man with sensitive traits, a man like you my friend. You got ‘em and I’m just a loud, rough-handed fellow who feels more at home in a pile of crates and a bunch of dirty workmen. I’m not the kind of man that women go crazy over unless I pay them. You’re a lucky bastard and don’t know it.”

Sandy had a rough side to him but was careful around Sylvia and Mary. His people came from the British Isles two generations before, all hard working stiffs, more adept at hard labor than knowing which fork to use at the dinner table. I could never detect any maliciousness in the man, which was probably the reason he still resided in this house. Speaking his mind made a few people uneasy, the truth uncomfortable at times. One could not fault him for his honesty, just his coarse method of delivery.

“I’m afraid it will look like I’m taking advantage of the woman,” I said rubbing my hands together in front of the fire. “Mrs. Masterson is only just out of mourning, her husband’s pictures litter the place, just like the big one in the den. I’m sure she still feels a strong affection toward him.”

The painting of Alexander ‘The Great’ Masterson drew a stern face and very white hair, his senior years in stark contrast to Sylvia’s few. Never having met the man I imagined him to be rigid in his ways as he appeared in the stern painting. The use of Alexander ‘The Great’ was a callus joke Sandy made up regarding the man’s conquering look, though he never said it in front of Mrs. Masterson.

“If you say so,” remarked Sandy smiling from ear to ear. “Old coot like Masterson couldn’t have been much to her liking, except for his money. You think they were able to, you know, do anything in the bedroom? The old goat probably couldn’t remember what to do at that age.”

I didn’t answer his question since it was an insensitive remark not fitting a proper response. I liked Sandy but didn’t always agree with his perception of the world or personal relationships. I derailed the conversation moving it to something less controversial. We talked at length about the influx of Oriental furniture being imported into the United States. I didn’t know anything about the subject but listened intently as Sandy went on about the subject. An hour of exchange had left me tired, and eager to escape further detailed examination of lacquered furniture. I had a long day ahead of me, my rent not quite secured for the coming week. I could feel the boarding house becoming warm; and was sure my room temperature had risen suitably by this time.

I ran into Mary, who stood in the hallway to my room, a stack of sheets and pillowcases pressed tightly against her chest, unsettled emotion etched in her thin face. The poor girl always looked nervous when one ran into her, common for her. I stepped aside allowing her to pass no conversation exchanged except a thank you on her part. I found it odd that a young woman like her should be so tense; she required little asking for nothing. Sylvia treated her well sensitive to Mary’s stressful nature. I imagined some incident of her past made her this way and there was little anyone could do about it. Sometimes I caught her staring down the hallway, watching me, her purpose unknown to me. If I looked back she’d bolt away in an instance. What was this young woman looking for? Why was she always so afraid? Those were questions I could not find an answer to; Mary acutely private in all that she did and not forthcoming with information.

A few steps beyond I reached my room only to find Mrs. Masterson’s door partially open. I couldn’t help but notice her standing just inside in her nightshift, not unpleasant to view by any means. I quickly averted my eyes out of respect, hoping she did not notice my observation.

“Mr. Merrill it is an early night for you?” she questioned holding a robe in front of her casually ignoring her state of undress. “You needn’t worry about my open door. Sometimes I feel confined and like to allow air to flow into my room. I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who took air baths, although in private and considerably free of any clothing. Strange man but brilliant from what I’ve read.”

“I’m sorry Mrs. Masterson. I did not know you were compromised,” I managed still facing away from her.

She pushed aside the door her body filling the void. I didn’t want to turn around witnessing more than what could be considered respectful. Mrs. Masterson was always very proper; I was afraid I might have offended her.

“Mr. Merrill please do not be embarrassed,” she added. “You are a respectful mature man and I…….” she paused carefully considering her words. “I am a mature woman; no harm has been done. I’m sure as a photographer for the newspaper you see much more than this, do you not?”

“Yes, I suppose I do, Mrs. Masterson. But I think it is inappropriate of me to view you in this manner.”

“It is only inappropriate if your intention are dishonorable, sir,” she returned. “Are they?”

“By no means,” I choke out. “I have the deepest respect for you and your late husband.”

She stood for a while debating on what to say. I kept my back to her trying not to look directly at the woman, still frozen in place. The encounter had not ended; I had to wait until she decided to terminate the exchange lest I be rude.

“In that case I would like to be frank, if I may,” she replied. “My late husband, Alexander has departed these four years leaving me well provided for; for that I appreciate him. Our marriage was not long lived, he passing away shy of our fifth anniversary. I admit I miss him from time to time, his serious side tempered by me. However, he was not the sort of man who dwelled at great length on our marriage or me for that matter. Sadly enough, I have been lonely well beyond these four years. He married me for image purposes, a trophy of a successful man. Our interactions were limited to…….well, they were limited to less intimate arrangements.”

“I am so sorry to hear that,” I responded with my back still turned.

“He was considerably older than I when we married, I was just a girl of eighteen back then with very few prospects. My parents passed away and I had only my pleasing appearance to offer as they are. Many girls married older men, a custom of the past, yet still exercised by my late husband. I had dreams of what it would be like, marriage that is. Alexander was a devout Baptist whereas I practiced Spiritualism to better understand the elusive afterlife. He did not approve of the practice but married me nonetheless. I enjoyed the security of my position and he, the flourish of a young wife; yet I enjoyed little else in the marriage; we could never have children due to his inattention.”

“I believe I take your meaning,” I responded.

“In that case please face me when I talk to you,” she demanded. “No need to stand on propriety when truth can be so comfortably divulging.”

I did as she asked careful not to stare. With chestnut hair falling gracefully over her shoulders I felt an intimacy between us, a desire, which I made sure to keep in check. Her eyes were soft, brown in color, beseeching me, studying my face for clues I might disclose.

“Through spirit guides I have spoken with my dead husband only to discover he is as unbending and boring now as he was when alive. That small awareness gives me the courage to say what I must. I find you a very attractive man Mr. Merrill. I must confess my heart flutters when I see you walk about in my home. It has not fluttered for anyone else past or present. I wish you could see your way to finding me acceptable as a woman, though I am not the young beauty of my past. If that is not the case, I shall say no more.”

Not having a vast amount of experience in these matters, there were few words to express my desire for her as I surveyed the woman before me. There was that strong drive in me to be the provider rather than the provided for. I knew this was not some illicit offer from a wanton woman; she possessed too much refinement for that. The passion she felt drove her to be honest to a fault, my response important not to offend.

“You are a lovely woman, no doubt; no man would say you are less; I will not be the first to deny it either,” I said taken in by her beauty. “You can understand why it is impossible for me to say more.”

“Fine,” she continued lowering her robe, her shift lightly pressing on her body revealing the soft details of her breast. “It may seem terrible to you that I blatantly approach you like this. Do not view me as a brazen woman asking for simple satisfaction. If I do not ask, I will die an old woman with nothing to show for my life except a neatly run house and a well-tended garden. Just be aware that my door is always open to you now and in the future, should you choose. I make no demands otherwise.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I muttered.

“It is not words I seek. I wish a man, you in particular, to make me feel like a woman, if not forever at least once. Please James?”

Sylvia took a few steps forward my feet frozen to the floor. Dropping her robe she took both of my hands and held them in front of us, searching my face for an answer I didn’t have. Her rich brown eyes pleading, the scent of her made me dizzy and I saw my resolve melting away. I could not deny she was a beautiful woman wasted on boarders, who let her care for their rented nests. I didn’t want to marry her or anyone else, a promise I made to myself ages ago. I had to make my fortune; only then could I accept the responsibility. Yet she placed no conditions on our alliance, which unnerved me, not the sort of thing a woman of her stature did. What I did at that time remains a mystery to all but Sylvia and myself.

 

Mary worked quickly to put an unscheduled brunch on the table, her nervous energy making her hands tremble a little. Sandy noticed her anxiety and winked at her, she not responding. Sylvia moved about in the early morning humming with a smile suggesting more than she knew. Surprised I found a basket of biscuits and jam on the dining table along with several slices of a smoked ham; brewed coffee and tea were available for those wishing it. Mary came out again to place additional cups on the table and crossed herself when she saw me. One might think the Devil himself sat at our morning table.

Sandy elbowed me. “I won’t have to be askin’ what happen last night,” he whispered. “The woman of the house sings a grand tune this morning and I will bet I know why. I told you she fancied you.”

Discussing what might or might not have happened was not in my morning mix of conversation. I scooped up a couple of biscuits with a few slices of ham to accompany my cup of coffee prepared to head out to the Boston World Adventurers Club. I was a couple dollars short and wanted to convince the club members to have a group photo taken, paid in advance of course. Sylvia said nothing as she waltzed through the dining area, touching me every so gently on the shoulders. Sandy nodded each time, his smile wider than before.

The other guests moved through the dining area, each elated with the unannounced morning offering. A few tarried only to take advantage of breaking their fast. No one spoke to me more than usual, nothing beyond a morning greeting. I didn’t wait around after finishing my meal, heading straight for the Boston World Adventurers Club. They had a morning meeting to discuss a joint project, a good indication of a photo opportunity.

Sylvia met me on the way out placing a hand over mine, whispering in my ear, “Tonight?”

The gentle squeeze of her hand reinforced her need and I possessed the ability to amend her loneliness without reservation. A relationship such as this would be doomed; I was sure. I found her attractive and sensual but I wasn’t sure I loved her in the way she might expect. I wasn’t even sure if I knew what love was. My pride did not allow me to take advantage of such a fine woman for carnal purposes alone. And the idea of being kept repulsed me. I had to be worthy as a man in all ways before engaging any woman, especially Sylvia.

I smiled tilting my head to the side saying nothing except to acknowledge her proposition. Her eyes reminded me of a puppy begging for treats and attention; Mrs. Masterson was no dog nor was she a wanton tart. In all things she remained a lady, cultured, refined and proper.

 

 

My Perceived Skill

 

The morning meeting of the Boston World Adventurers Club was in full swing when I arrived, loud talk mixed with laughter. I took my usual seat just outside the main hall lifting the newspaper off the chair to see what news I’d missed; I tried to keep up for business reasons. I found my photographs mixed among those of lesser quality, mine with perfect balance.

 

Am I really that good, I thought? No one knows how little they pay me to print them. Better than starving, I suppose.

 

Artimus Crone dominated the photos in the paper, though he rarely did any of the work himself, his minions scurrying about for the crumbs of his notoriety. Was it right to put your name on another’s photograph? Did the editor even notice the difference? I doubted it.

Page one of the paper had a shot of the mayor proclaiming a political clean up of the city, Artimus’ picture grainy and almost unrecognizable. He took the credit for the photo, which was probably taken by some youngster with a two-dollar camera. Page two was worse, a picture of the harbor riot, the combatants a blur against an equally blur of ships, the imagination having to fill in what was not visible. It was fruitless to fume over this.

I had not been paying any attention to the heated discussion, taking place a few feet from me; there was the mention of the big game hunt in Africa two years before, William Waterford the leader and proposer of the event. I was too wrapped up in my disgust of Artimus Crone and his undeserved reputation to listen very closely.

I put down the newspaper smoldering at the injustice of it all when a white gloved, black servant named Ben stood beside me. He treated me with respect even though I was not on equal footing with the club members. Ben channeled some of the food and drink to me now and then even though I was not entitled. He understood very well what it was like being low on the totem pole, socially. A quiet man, he did his employer’s bidding with little complaint; I suspected his contempt for the idle rich, well hidden. I could see it in his eyes when the club members treated him as less than a human.

“Mr. Merrill the gentlemen wish you to attend their meeting for technical advice,” announced Ben winking at me. “I believe they wish to spend a lot of money; not that they would ever think to share their wealth in the form of a tip for me,” he added in a whisper. “Spoiled children if you ask me, sir.”

I liked Ben and I had to agree with his assessment. We spoke many times before about his slave heritage and the hardships of his family, escaping the tyranny of one set of white people for another was what it amounted to. Reasonable employment was difficult to come by for those freed from slavery several generations ago. I never understood it because I was raised on the same side of the tracks as that Ben was. Someday I will have to write about it, though I’m sure he’d be better suited if not more accurate in the telling.

 

The usual crowd sat in their respective places in the main hall, a small table with books and photos strewn about in the center of the grouping. Derek Boyce Clemens sat in a chair separate from them all, the king of the club, should such a title exist. Waterford sat next to him toying with an African fly swatter made of the tail of some unfortunate beast. Selius Albright sat on the other side his collection of exotic butterflies near at hand. They all sat waiting for my timely entrance. Murray Feltsten was the only man turned away from me, he attending the meeting in shame.

“James is it?” questioned Derek Clemens as if he barely seen me before, though I’d been a regular for two years.

“Yes, sir,” I responded nervous about being singled out this way.

“Your photographic skills are impressive, young man,” he announced without any objections, each member nodding approval. “I believe we all have the likeness of our faces on film due to your expertise. I may not be an expert but I have not seen many who can call themselves your better. I think we all can agree on that, gentlemen. Correct?”

There was a rumble of confirmation followed by a clearing of throats and mixed grunts. No one there really wanted to heap too much praise on my common shoulders.

“That’s very kind of you to say, Mr. Clemens,” I replied. “It is my passion and penance.”

“Penance? How so, James?”

“Begging your pardon sir but photography is an art few people pay well for. It is not recognized with art, catching an image considered a mechanical trick. My fortunes will never be made with the camera, I fear.”

“Yet you persist. Admirable! Just the sort of man we are looking for.”

They had me examine the club’s photographs of previous expeditions; of course none of the pictures were mine. Clemens asked that I point out the good and poor examples of these photographic records. It was easy to do since none of them were taken by a trained photographer. I had to explain each in detail, which I did. I pulled one out at random.

“This particular one was taken with very bad light,” I began. “All the details are washed out due to lack of light; a flash should have been used. This one has plenty of light but is not in focus; pity, because it’s a nice photo of the hunter and prey. This next one shows too much movement blurring the arms and legs of the subjects; the camera lens can only capture still objects unless one knows how to compensate.”

“Mr. Waterford this delightful elephant is preparing to charge,” injected Derek. “Were it not for witnesses to verify the beast’s intentions I would say this is hardly proof enough of beast’s ill mood, for shame.”

“Yes, I have to agree,” returned Waterford biting his lip.

“Ah, yes,” I added. “The camera and the subject were both moving.”

“You can tell that by looking?” asked Derek.

“It’s easy to see because of the double images when the film was exposed. The shutter was left open too long. Too much light and movement, I’m afraid.”

William Waterford did not completely enjoy this observation; neither did the others whose photographs were also scrutinized.

“That says it all gentlemen,” declared Derek leaning back in his chair. “We cannot be expected to be taken seriously when we fail to supply adequate accounts of our adventures. The best equipment does not equate to the best photographs, gentlemen. It is the man behind the camera, who validates our costly endeavors. Do we agree?”

There was a momentary mumbling in the crowd, some still defending their deficient attempts at photography. Derek held up his royal hand bringing silence to the room. As a leader he commanded the respect of all in the room including Feltsten, who quietly grumbled in his corner of shame.

“It is settled,” commanded Derek. “Our next expedition will include Mr. Merrill if he so agrees to partake in our adventure. The Amazon is relatively unexplored by white men, the hidden tribes like the pygmy tribes, Baka and Mbuti completely unseen by civilized man, though I doubt we will encounter them given our destination. We can discuss financial arrangements later Mr. Merrill. What say you young man?”

The unexpected offer was better than I could hope for; however, the idea of traveling to another continent was frightening. My exposure to the world consisted of nothing other than a brief holiday in Florida where I lived on the beach and scrounged for food. To go to another country, where wild is the norm, presented a different habitat to consider. I explained to Clemens my need to get personal affairs in order before embarking on any such an adventure. He scoffed at the mention, suggesting a simple arrangement to deal with the problems that may arise, several dollars to offset the inconvenience.

South America, Brazil and the Amazon, this was a lifetime offer anyone would jump at. What was stopping me? When I thought about it there wasn’t anything keeping me in Boston except my room at the boarding house and the pennies I received from the newspaper photographs. I could find a place to store my few possessions and be on my way in a matter of a day or so. What other excuse could I use?

“I’d like to think about this,” I said.

“Of course,” bellowed Derek. “You can let us know by tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“That should be time enough, I would think,” Derek returned as easily as if he was ordering another drink. “And I think to commemorate the occasion we should have a group photo. Is it possible for you to join us in the picture?”

“Let me set up my camera,” I said studying these men of wealth and power. “It will only take a moment.”

Luckily, I remembered to bring my good camera and tripod anticipating such a photo. Usually I brought a small box camera for these simple photos, my hand steady enough to snap the pictures.

“My dear James,” said Derek. “You must be in this photo with us all. After all you are going to add credibility to our discoveries with your outstanding skill. Can you set that up and have someone push a button or something?”

“Yes, I suppose I can but someone will have to step out if I step in.”

“Murray!” called Derek. “Would you be so kind to facilitate?”

This was an obvious slap in the face for Murray Feltsten, who was continuing to be harangued over the fake pygmy claim. I didn’t want to alienate anyone but His Majesty, Derek Clemens insisted on the arrangement. A quick demonstration of what needed to be done followed by a negative immortalizing me with the Boston World Adventure Club membership was done in short order, Murray Feltsten scowling the entire time.

 

I was given an advance to tidying up my financial affairs, which was only fair since I had no savings to tap. Sylvia Masterson refused to take the money, stating the room would be there when I returned, a tear forming in the corner of her eye for reasons I am still unsure of.

“It is so easy for a man to go out in the world and seek adventure,” said Sylvia regretfully. “A woman’s lot is in the waiting, waiting for a man’s return, waiting for his attention, waiting for something that may never be. We know this and accept it because there is no other way. There are times when I wish it were otherwise.”

Not keen on what to say to an emotional woman I nodded and smiled trying to look busy with my things.

“Your room will be here when you get back as I have promised, Mr. Merrill. I will be here as well, should you see that as a desirable notion; I pray you look forward to both.”

She stepped forward giving me a kiss on the cheek, a stifled, throaty sob emitting from her before turning away.

“I’m sorry, you must think me brazen,” she added facing away, standing by the doorway. “I assure you I am not; I cannot help what I feel.”

 

Sandy Nelson and the other boarders slapped me on the back wishing me well, each having opinion of such an adventure, romanticizing the expedition beyond all reality. I knew it would be a hard demanding adventure given what little information I had; Mr. Masterson’s library had a very interesting book on the subject of the Amazon. There was little romance in facts regarding snakes, mosquitoes and the big carnivorous cats that resided in the jungle, and equal danger existed with the Indians we might encounter. Few whites had penetrated their villages because intruders were dispatched before getting close enough.

 

 

The Adventure

 

The club agreed to furnish me with better photo equipment, fine German made camera lenses and enough film to last the trip and then some. My job was to prepare photo records of flora, fauna and Indians along with descriptions of what we encountered also where these were located. I assumed photos of the pompous club members would also be the order of the day, though the photos of nature would hold the interest of the common man a lot more than some over-stuffed, strutting rich bastard. I suppose it’s wrong of me to judge these men; I see them as spoiled children with unlimited resources to take what they want, when they want it.

At the club, a map was produced outlining our path to the vast unexplored region, deep in the recesses of the Amazon. It was a challenge to decide where to start and where to end; I was sure it would be less a matter of choice, considering the time constraints. These would-be explorers wanted to get there as soon as possible and back to civilization before the next company board meeting.

Brazil and Peru were known to possess several undiscovered Indians tribes, each with their own distinct language, a problem when looking for an interpreter; communications would prove to be the one serious problem on the expedition. The existence of these invisible people was rumored by whites; other tribes interacting with them on a regular basis giving credibility to the rumors. These ghost Indians sometimes wandered into the missions or other neighboring tribes who were friendly with the whites. A few would stay to feast, leaving shortly afterwards. It’s difficult to say whether they became lost, a very unlikely circumstance since their lives were as much of the jungle as our street names. Or perhaps they were cast out of their village for some transgression we did not know of. Indians rarely left their own village except to hunt or make war. Most tribes avoided war since it reduced their numbers dangerously.

Our trip by steamship was uneventful, the weather fine and the accommodations reasonable, except for the few days of seasickness. By the end of the trip I managed to keep down a few crackers and ginger ale, the remedy recommended by a seasoned sailor, who had been to sea since a small child, his skin tough as leather. I wasn’t alone in this retching malady, several in our entourage suffered, some more some less.

Our captain claimed it was the way we were sailing with the waves breaking on the side of the ship. Frankly I think it didn’t matter where the waves were breaking in the leaking tub, bobbing up and down in the ocean. A crewmember confirmed the wallowing characteristics of the vessel, saying it was among the worse he had been on as a sailor. He may have been unaffected by the continuos roll, though others of the crew seemed to appear a little green around the gills early in the voyage, not an uncommon condition when sailors were land bound for too long.

Whether by choice or chance we landed in Brazil inside the mouth of the Amazon River during the height of the hot season, humidity keeping our clothing damp all day. I had some concern for the camera equipment and film, the latter sensitive to the heat. As uncomfortable as it was I was told we were fortunate not to be here during the rainy season. Locals maintained the rains came with a fierceness making travel impossible for all but the natives familiar with such weather. Our expedition was going to be by steamboat then up the waterways in progressively smaller craft. Passable roads and trails through the jungle were nonexistent.

William Waterford was our most experienced member of the expedition having traveled through some of the remote areas in Africa. Africa however was not South America. Waterford was intelligent enough to seek the expertise of the locals before setting foot on the trail, cautious not to stumbling onto hazards and the like. The surly Murray Feltsten accompanied the group in hopes to redeem his reputation, complaining all the while about primitive conditions and the lack of creature comforts he was accustomed to. The other members of the club to join the expedition had never gone anywhere so remote. Michael McGhillis and Earl Tombs bought their way into the expedition underwriting a considerable part of the endeavor. Reginald, Reggie, Smythe accompanied the group as a lark and the comic relief, not everyone amused with his humor and antics.

We were promised an interpreter by the time we got further up the river, a necessity since the grunts and babble of the locals escaped our understanding. One could travel ten miles in any direction and discover a completely different language, each band laying claim to their specific form of chatter. A good deal of our communications was done by pointing and shoving, non-verbal in nature but roughly effective. Some of the borderline civilized Indians spoke Spanish and Portuguese. That did not bode well with our group since none of us spoke either.

The process was slow the boat stopping at every small dock jutting out into the river. Supplies were dropped off such as rubber while other goods were picked up in its place. On the fifth day we arrived at a clearing with an assortment of crude huts slightly before dark. The largest structure had no walls apparently set up to accommodate a fair number of people. The steamboat would not go beyond this point the water too shallow in many places and hazards further up river. They had no reason to go beyond this point anyway, since commerce had yet to intrude upstream.

There were a few Indians and chickens scattered about, seemingly uninterested in our arrival, the chickens, perhaps, slightly more attentive. I’m not sure what I expected, a welcoming committee? A young boy scampered off as we reached the first hut. Shortly afterward a man wearing a faded, green canvas hat jammed over his white hair slipped out of one of the huts surprised at our arrival, making the sign of the cross as he walked toward us.

“Brother Emanuel!” he announced extending a hand to any who might take it. “I am so sorry we did not make any preparations; we did not know anyone was coming. News from civilization travels slowly in the jungle.”

Waterford descended the boat ramp and shook hands with our host. “Yes, I’m afraid the notion to come here was quite sudden. You see we are about to explore the regions beyond here and make contact with the wild Indians, a bit of an expedition for science and the sort.”

“Oh dear,” said Emanuel with genuine concern. “There are many bands friendly and unfriendly in the area; I hope you know how to deal with the less hospitable ones. Superstition guides so many of them; white men are viewed as evil in many of their minds. They do not like change or anything different from their normal routine; quite set in their ways. They judge you arbitrarily, good or bad, taking action accordingly. I would use extreme caution to guide you.”

“We come in friendship, Brother,” began Waterford an air of confidence resounding in his voice. “I have experience in these matters from my expeditions in Africa. The primitives are easily frightened with the loud sound of gunfire. A few shots in the air usually discourages them from any undue violence.”

“This may be true,” continued Brother Emanuel. “But do not underestimate these people; they learn quickly and can be quite deadly in their response. I bring them the word of God and they, in turn leave me alone because they think I have magic from my God. My converts here are one step removed from pagan beliefs; I fear they wear Christianity like a coat, removing it when it suits them. Still, I have to be careful lest I offend. I suggest you take care not to alienate them. These people are capable of untold atrocities.”

It was a sobering warning, Waterford thanking Brother Emanuel for his concern. Murray Feltsten muttered to himself rubbing his backside surveying the accommodations. Michael McGhillis and Earl Tombs stared at the children gathering at their feet, extending hands the universal sign to receive gifts. The men produced a few coins for the children shooing them off afterwards. There were other gifts in the packs reserved for the Indians they would encounter further up river. These were to be held until we made contact and developed a rapport with these new people.

Reggie swatted a biting insect and commented, “Cozy little mission setting. Charming indeed! I shall have to construct one of these on my estate. Pity I can’t take a few of the natives to give it atmosphere; that would be something to have, half naked natives running about in Boston.”

The sounds of the night played a symphony of the unseen noises, unfamiliar to all of us. Which of those noises posed any threat was also unknown, the panther among the dangers in the jungle. Brother Emanuel could not offer proper lodging, insisting we camp in the compound, pitching our tents in the clearing close to the huts, not the river. He explained the hazards of setting up too close to the water’s edge, creatures of the night having a habit of quenching their thirst and investigating new arrivals.

There were few if any comforts in the tiny ministry, the huts simple without walls in some cases. Brother Emanuel received a small amount of funds from the Catholic Church to facilitate his ministry, hardly enough to keep him alive, let alone the indigenous natives. In cooperation, his converts supplemented his food with local fruits and game. In exchange he allowed several to squat in the compound forming a village. Most of his flock were the sick and maimed, the old and infirm arriving from villages not wishing to take care of them. Relatives of these people would drift in and out from their villages to visit bringing food, few staying afterwards.

My first evening’s fare was something I’ll never forget. Brother Emanuel’s cook put together a special stew of meat with some strange vegetables for our benefit. The food was ample enough but had an unusual taste to it, sweet yet earthy. I inquired about the concoction wondering what the ingredients might be. Since I was to document the flora and fauna I might contribute an account of its preparation for the evening meal.

“You are in luck Mr. Merrill,” announced Brother Emanuel. “One of the young men provided a monkey for our meal, quite a treat. There aren’t as many in this area anymore; the rubber plantations have all but chased them out.”

Though I am aware Indians eat whatever is available, monkey is not dissimilar to humans in my estimation. Our simian relatives bear too much in common to casually enjoy consuming their flesh. Making a face, I excused myself afraid I might lose the contents of my stomach.

Our group was eager to depart the next morning, the camp disassembling early. Waterford inquired about the Indian guide who might know the area we wished to investigate. Though we had been assured there would be Indians to carry our load only a few in Brother Emanuel’s nest were willing to do so; more porters would have to be found. Word was quickly sent our to facilitate our departure and nonessentials put aside. Feltsten complained about everything we selected. He campaigned for the heavy camera equipment to be left behind so he could have his sour mash whiskey. Waterford didn’t blink an eye when setting the whiskey in the nonessential pile. Changes of clothing were limited to two sets of everything. We would have to wash one while wearing the other.

“It appears we will be without our wee dram this evening,” reported Reggie. “Our dear Mr. Feltsten will be besides himself, no doubt.”

The flour, goose pate, tins of caviar and several cans of beef were left behind with the goal of living off the land as suggested by Brother Emanuel. Items like folding chairs and tables were too bulky being set aside as well. We were left with tents, mosquito netting, basic food and my camera equipment of course; I was glad they had not left them behind. Assignments were made as to who would carry what, the natives limited by their own choice. Murray Feltsten humiliated with the prospect of having to carry items that were not his and protested with vigor. However, there was no other way; each had a similar load to carry.

“Dear, dear,” said Reggie with a genuine smile. “How shall we survive without the my caviar? So uncivilized! The extra pairs of knickers are a must, I suppose. No worry about starch in them, my fellow comrades.”

Murray and the others did not laugh, though Waterford had half a smile. Reggie was giving up his own creature comforts without complaint, choosing to make light of it.

“The Indian guide you require is named Charlie,” said Brother Emanuel, his hand on the young Indian’s shoulder beside him. “He has another name, Cha-something, which I have never been able to remember. He’s pleased enough to be called by the Christian name I gave him. He speaks Portuguese well enough, though his English not the best; I feel he will be able to help considerably since he knows the jungle and speaks the language of the people you seek.”

“We shall take good care of him,” Waterford declared.

“I fear he will take better care of you,” responded Brother Emanuel crossing himself again. “There are dangers out there only he will know of.”

The last comment was lost on William Waterford as he was moving up and down the line of Indian bearers. Three of them were women almost naked yet very sturdy. Waterford was not pleased having women in the group because of the potential effect it had on men. Brother Emanuel felt the women were necessary because their skill and knowledge of the jungle menu would benefit all in the expedition. There was another advantageous factor we had not considered. A group accompanied by women was unlikely to suggest a threat to anyone. Warriors planning mischief never brought their women with them.

 

The first day out was easy going, the trails heavily used and clear of heavy undergrowth. The tribes and other bands we encountered were friendly though cautious of strangers; white men were still somewhat of a novelty and not to be trusted. Some would call out from several yards away, Charlie answering them in a singsong tongue. I never found out what he said but assumed it was a greeting of sorts, perhaps an explanation of our purpose. Our first camp was set up near a part of the jungle where the trails were faint to rapidly disappearing.

Earl Tombs lit a pipe, his only luxury and stood before the dense jungle gazing in wonderment. His starched attire was undoubtedly the best that money could buy his father a wealthy railroad baron. Earl complained little yet absorbed his surroundings good and bad with obvious delight. His father objected to Earl’s need to travel so far and to live so poorly for no apparent reason. Let the human monkeys live in their trees, he would say. I didn’t make all this money to have you traipse off into the land of heathens, your head shrunken to the size of a grapefruit.

It was an unfair analysis; Earl did not possess the ruthlessness of his father choosing to write and compose poetry instead of breaking the backs of his underpaid employees. Fortunately wealth facilitated Earl’s curiosity about the world around him, so many things beyond the ledger sheet. There was a vast world beyond the city limits of Boston, much more than iron rails and smoking train engines.

Michael McGhillis had nothing in common with Earl or any of us. His exploration had nothing to do with people. He heard rumors of the hidden wealth, possibly gold, in the Amazon hoping to extract some of it for his own benefit. Rubber and lumber had already taken its toll on the jungle forest, gold the last incentive to rape the land.

McGhillis slumped to the ground exhausted from the journey, rubbing his calf muscles. He was about fifty pounds overweight and in lousy shape. He made his displeasure known, though not as openly vocal as Murray, neither of them imagining it to be this difficult. McGhillis appeared to be friendly on the outside but I knew there wasn’t a warm happy person behind the smile and firm handshake, a façade.

McGhillis rarely used his first name, preferring his last as a way to address him. He called Earl a sissy all the time, pointing out his easy life and a wealthy father, envious no doubt. There was no father to hand it over to McGhillis, no blank check. He had to work hard for what he had. Steel was the backbone of America and made him rich; gold would make him richer. A few shady deals and an unfortunate end to his partner gave him what he wanted, complete control of the business. His partner had an accident during a boat outing, tragically, not a good swimmer. It was never established whether there was foul play at hand, though some suspected it.

Charlie, our guide did not carry anything but stripped to the waist leading the way, reverting to his native ways. He pointed out things to us now and then but said little. Like all the Indians he stood barely five feet in height. Frankly it made sense since smaller bodies made the jungle manageable. He stayed with the other Indians when we camped, spending considerable time with one of the women. She responded to him because he was leading the white men an important distinction. That status moved him up the ladder in her eyes and she offered her affections because of it. Noises behind bushes at times attested to his success with the female porter.

Murray did not appreciate the fact that Charlie was off doing what comes natural to these primitives. As a single man he had little success with women socially and intimately. His false bravado turned a lot of women off, in spite of his money. Even in that respect, there were limitations when one considered he was still a workingman, his textile business requiring his constant attention leaving little time for those of the opposite sex; women of the higher station in life preferred men who did not have to work. He and McGhillis were the complainers on our expedition.

Reginald Smythe took everything in stride, his fortune from old money in England, the family business of import/export thriving for close to one hundred years. Reggie was a regular visitor to the playgrounds of Europe and a veteran of three separate safaris in Africa. He had also participated in a mock tiger hunt in India where he sat with his royal host atop an elephant while sipping a pricey, single malt scotch. In spite of all his wealth he had a positive outlook on life, keeping fit by rowing and playing tennis. He seemed to have a clever witticism for every occasion, never deterred by circumstances, which proved to lessen the burden of the trek.

“I dare say, that was quite an invigorating jaunt today,” announced Reggie. “Shame about the scotch left behind. I dare say, Brazil would be such a nice place if one could eliminate the jungle and Indians. Hmm! Defeats the whole purpose of this stroll through the jungle, I suppose.”

Waterford spent the evening discussing the plan for the next day with Charlie. Charlie indicated through words and sign language they should stop by noontime in the jungle and set up camp.

“Next day go river,” struggled Charlie in his limited English. “Too close bad.”

“Why?” questioned Waterford.

Charlie pantomimed with his arms stretched out opening and closing, his lips making a smacking noise followed by a roar.

“Caiman?”

Charlie nodded eagerly. “Too close. Trouble,” he added. He continued to display another hazard to Waterford. “A terra enguli-lo-a,” he continued. “Ground no swallow you. Prenda um polo, hold stick.”

The gist of the display spoke of the quicksand, which could be found all around the river’s edge. Carrying a long pole kept a person from sinking and gave one a handle should they get trapped. Charlie indicated that the group should stay close on his heels, lest they fall victim to the ground that swallowed people.

I never had to lead or cut my way through the jungle because of the heavy equipment I carried. I couldn’t allow an inexperienced porter to handle my delicate camera equipment for fear he might drop it. A few times I stopped to photograph something of interest, like a large coiled snake in a tree. Charlie whacked the head off saying. He made a sign that it was good to eat. To date, I had eaten monkey and was about to enjoy my first culinary experiment with snake. For some reason the idea of eating a snake was nowhere as repulsive as monkey.

This part of the jungle posed more difficulties. One couldn’t see the sun except for a few rays that managed to push through the dense canopy. The great adventurers were concerned we were going the wrong way, when Charlie redirected our group to the right of our main trail, not that there was any trail to begin with. He pointed upwards and then made a few more signs to prove his point. We didn’t know what that was, but followed him without comment. Waterford pulled out the rough map of the area noting the detour was to avoid several areas of quicksand ahead. That was confirmed when an hour later we diverted back towards the river.

To the casual observer one might think we were already in the land where no whites had been, quickly dispelled when we continued to run into Indians wearing western clothing, though ill fitting. These tribes interacted with the white men for the things the jungle could not provide. Shirts and trousers along with metal goods kept these people close to the thread of white civilization.

An Indian in faded shorts stepped forward along the trail smiling with an armload of fish wrapped in large green leaves. He spoke to us in the language of his people; none of us understood. Charlie did not have a clue what was being said either. Through sign language he quickly discovered the man wished to trade the fish for any goods the expedition might have.

“Trade,” insisted Charlie. “Good fish. Friend.”

“I don’t see why we have to trade with these bloody savages,” complained Murray. “Next thing you know all his relatives will be down on us offering fish for God knows what price. We can catch our own fish if we chose. Send the bugger away.”

“Ah, but we have no time to stop and do so,” reminded Waterford. “Besides, I recall these particular fish are quite tasty. Let’s find something to trade that will make the chap happy. Good public relations.”

The offer of money was refused but the Indian fancied the damaged bush short we carried. A pair of shorts was given in exchange for the cornucopia of fish; the size of the garment, or the missing button on the fly did not bother him. He reacted like a man who has just won a prize, holding the garment as if it were exotic Chinese silk.

We arrived at the river in the early afternoon the sun baking us as we ascertained our next move. Charlie ran off briefly, returning with several men sporting spears and long metal knives. More sign language and a few bribes secured several long, shallow drafting dugout canoes, which barely rode above waterline when filled to capacity. The men with spears replaced our porters, since there was not enough room for them all. Our two half-breed porters decided to stay with our group, Charlie’s native girl and her sister adding four to the number. Charlie explained the new men will come along with us to a point but would not go beyond the river’s edge once they got us to our destination.

“How the hell are we going to get all our things to the hidden village?” grumbled Murray Feltsten. “There won’t be enough men to carry our things. I’ll be damned if I carry another stick.”

Waterford ignored the complaint supervising the loading of the canoes. He actually had little to say about it since the spear carrying men indicated what should go where and it was too hot and muggy to object. The fresh fish made them smile as they negotiated that in the price of transport.

Loaded we moved quickly into the river our canoe conductors unconcerned about the load, which threatened to swamp the boat with every ripple and stroke. They were careful to avoid certain things in the river. A log might not be a log at all. Caiman often hovered just below the surface waiting for the unfortunate four-legged as well as the two-legged victims. Real logs could easily be part of a snag causing the dugout canoe to overturn. Other things lurked in the water unfriendly to humans, piranha for one.

The Indians leisurely paddled along undisturbed by our urgency; they saw no need to expend energy for what appeared to be a folly to them. Why work harder than necessary when you’ll get there later? This philosophy endured whenever indigenous people were employed. Our primitive armada veered off to a left tributary from the larger river by direction of Charlie who appeared to command some attention from our new porters. The light was beginning to fail and I was concerned we might not get off the river before it was completely dark. Anacondas were common in the shallow pools and quick to grab an errant foot in the dark.

The lead vessel pointed to a section of beach on the left side of the tributary; our destination or a stopover, we were not sure. The spear carrying boatmen appeared to know where we were going ignoring our questions, which they obviously didn’t understand. Each boat in turn pulled onto the beach unloading passengers and a few items for the evening camp.

Batente, stop,” managed Charlie. “We go, morning leave.”

So this wasn’t our destination yet. I wondered how far our final objective was; Charlie being secretive or possibly didn’t know. The days turned into a blur of green jungle, murky water and blue skies. I was not an expert but wondered how deep we had to progress before finding the hidden people of the jungle.

“How many days?” I asked Charlie pointing to the descending sun.

He looked at the sun, blood red, rapidly sinking behind the canopy of the jungle and shrugged. It’s hard to say what that meant since he was not fluent in English and I could hardly discern a word he said in Portuguese. I realized just how important language when one had to communicate.

An uneasy feeling crept over me; I did not like it at all. We were all like helpless leaves in the water, propelled about by the human current of wild Indians unable to control our destiny. Being at the mercy of people pushing you toward a possible unknown danger was unnerving. I had to trust them and our group, as I had no choice in the matter.

Our spear toting Indians led us away from the river for about ten minutes hike before setting down to camp. This was for the same reason as before, snakes and Caiman. Our guides weren’t worried about us as much as their own skin; they had survived this long because of this.

I’d like to say we reached our destination the next day but that would be untrue, traveling two more days before coming to a stretch of beach where all our things were unceremoniously dumped at the water’s edge. I had not been idle during our upstream travel, taking photos of birds and the wild plant life as we moved along the edge of this Garden of Eden. While still in the deep water a pure white dolphin brushed against us at one point surprising all but the Indians who saw it as an everyday occurrence. I regret the dolphin moved too quickly for me to photograph but made a mental note to keep an eye out for them in the future.

On this leg of the journey, the body of water was hardly what one could call a river, our boats scraping on the bottom of the tiny stream. Most of the time we had to slog through the water on foot while the boats were towed or pushed to the final landing, Murray Feltsten complaining every inch of the way. To our surprise and dismay the Indians refused to go beyond this point only agreeing to move the equipment and suppiles a short distance from the river. Only two half-cast Indians and two women stayed. One woman having an eye for Charlie was willing to risk the dangers along with her sister who also stayed as well.

“I dare say,” announced Reggie. “Do you suppose we might find the elusive Mister Livingston in such a place? A wrong turn here or there may have landed him in South America instead of Africa.”

McGhillis scowled at Reggie throwing aside the heavy pack with a grunt. “How can you make light of this?” demanded McGhillis. “If the animals and mosquitos don’t kill us there’s a good chance the Indians will. Doesn’t it worry you at all?”

“My dear boy,” continued Reggie. “There is little purpose in frowning when one is faced with danger. Embrace it with a smile and a large degree of hope, old chap. I cannot speak for the beasts of the river but a smile might amuse the Indians, who may view us as a ridiculous species, human or otherwise. We may live due to their curiosity. Take heart gentlemen, our good man Charlie claims they no longer eat their enemies. An acquired taste, I suppose.”

Fearing the primitive and violent nature of the area, our spear carrying Indians refused to stay beyond that night. Whether this was because of tall tales or the fact that skirmishes with these remote tribes led to the loss of life for those foolish enough to trespass. Though the Indians did not want to move further into the jungle, we did negotiate an agreement for them to return in four weeks time, the cycle of the moon our common-ground indicator. Calendars were rare and unintelligible to these simple people, whose lives were governed by God’s natural clock.

We set up a base camp from where all discoveries would be shared, everyone returning to report success or failure of our objective. It was impossible to carry our equipment beyond this point without help. Food and supplies would have to be moved in several installments, limiting our time for investigation and discoveries. It might take the entire time for us to find these living myths, ghost of the forest. Plus there was no way of knowing how close the Indians were, ghosts of the jungle it was said.

Waterford was good at setting up camp and organizing things, a schedule of duties set for all of us, cooking, collecting firewood and maintaining camp security. Certain days would be set aside to explore with a rendezvous following each search to discuss signs of life and further plans. Under no circumstances was anyone to wander off alone; according to Charlie that would be a foolish mistake. The buddy system was to be employed no one deviating from it.

“From my experience there’s always something unexpected thrown into the mix, unplanned for,” reported Waterford. “We have to remain flexible enough to change course when it is required and discard any rigid ideas in favor of those more lucrative. That will be the purpose of our meetings, to discuss alterations. Charlie will do his best to locate his former tribe, though he claims they will only allow us to find them if they choose so. I suggest we all bend to our assignments and make the best of it.”

 

 

Camp Life

 

Earl Tombs may have looked out of place with his starched clothes and neat manner but he was quick to dive into the tasks set before him. He could be found staring intently at an unusual flower or plant writing down bits of information with an accompanying rough sketch. I took it upon myself to photograph some of those flowers to support his botanical discoveries. He informed me he was an amateur botanist with an extensive hothouse system of exotic plants on his property. Never having studied Latin, I had no notion of the words he wrote in his notebook; he faltered a few times unable to assign names to some of them. However we were not here to collect plants and there were many things to do before we could take one step from our camp.

McGhillis and Murray Feltsten formed a mutual complaint society, grumbling about every inconvenience. They were teamed up to collect firewood that first day, both bitterly objecting to menial work better suited to those of a step-and-fetch-it class. We all ignored them. Waterford tackled the cooking arrangements with the help of Charlie, who rather enjoyed cooking the local available cuisine whether animal or vegetable. I was set upon as a perimeter guard while all the others busied themselves with their duties. A quick demonstration of the bolt-action rifle was the extent of my security training, not that I could ever shoot at anyone, my aim was done behind a camera not along the sights of an Enfield.

I was relieved of the guard duty a couple hours later when Waterford directed our two half-breeds to provide security in my stead. He did not allow them to carry any guns because they may be too quick to use them or

accidentally shoot one of us. They were not very adept with the weapons of our fabrication, choosing a spear, which required nothing but practice, an arm and hand to throw it.

I tried to fill in where necessary, fetching and carrying anything for our needs. Boiled water was our only source of drinking water because of the parasites found in these streams and rivers, my job to watch and time the boiling to ensure safe water, a task requiring no skill whatsoever. Canteens were to be filled every morning.

On our first day we formed three small groups moving in straight lines away from our base camp, Waterford breaking up the McGhillis/Feltsten twins to minimize the complaints and objections. The forest was too thick to walk in a straight so a compass was issued to each leader of each group. Charlie did not need a compass, claiming a better sense of direction than the rest of us.

Most of the time we made very little progress given the heavy undergrowth, a half-mile at best. There were no sign of the Indians past or present, our whole endeavor possibly for nothing, though I was photographing quite a few things of interest. Charlie was more optimistic making a circle with his arm extended all around him, indicating our objective surrounded us and would appear when they decided; I never questioned his word.

I was fortunate to be in the group Charlie led everyday. He was quite adept at finding edible plants and animals, whacking some of them with a machete for supper. He warned us about the frogs with bright colors, which were highly poisonous when touched. The wonders of the jungle wove its story in my head as Charlie explained as best he could, what was being viewed. Animal tracks gave clues to the drama unfolding a short time before our arrival. Charlie pantomimed some of these stories showing a large constrictor squeezing its victim, which did not seem like a good way to die.

Though we found many tracks of animals, no human footprint gave way to the presence of our lost tribe. Of course one must consider the word lost being applied to us more than them; I never had a clue where we were or how to get back to our camp. Ducking under plants and weaving around large trees made it impossible to know the direction traveled. The tree canopy was so thick in places it shut out all light turning the ground into deep heavily shaded places. Though it wasn’t my place, I asked Charlie how he planned find these people.

Encontrar-nos-åo, they find us,” he returned. “Maybe!”

I got the impression he knew all along we would not find any signs of life beyond the natural creatures residing in the Amazon, play-acting to demonstrate where these people were. He made a footprint in the soft soil scratching it out with a stick to show we could not find them this way. He pointed to the trees, his index finger jutting upwards. I was pretty sure he pantomimed the message that they moved around in the trees like the monkeys, not on the ground.

He made another gesture indicating a roof or house; again he pointed upward to the canopy. The people lived in the trees; it made complete sense. Given the severe rainy season and the numerous dangers of living on the ground trees were the safer option. There was the distinct possibility they had been watching us from above these several days without us knowing. I decided to mention this to Waterford, who was receptive to any suggestions and new information.

 

 

First Encounter

 

On the way back to our base camp several distant shots rang out, difficult to tell how far away it was because the dense jungle muted the sound. We quickened our pace fearing something had gone amiss and hoping it was an accidental discharge. Upon our arrival at the camp we could hear one of the other groups moving closer to us an angry exchange between Waterford and McGhillis. Thrashing from a different direction came the other group also alarmed by the gunfire moving quickly into a clearing for news.

Once together the explanation of what had happened unfolded, tensions at a peak. Waterford was red with rage; McGhillis in no better mood, his self-righteous attitude obvious to any who might observe. The men stood apart acutely furious with one another.

“Good lord, gentlemen!” spouted Reggie arriving shortly after us. “What is all the yelling and screaming about? Were those shots I heard?”

Waterford was livid, taking large steps towards the center of camp to vent his anger instead of yelling. He was an unusually controlled man not prone to needless anger; his abrupt movements gave everyone cause for concern. Tossing aside his pack and rifle he tried to calmly explain, taking a few slower breathes before starting.

“Mr. McGhillis has found it necessary to shoot at our first Indian sighting,” reported Waterford pointing his finger at McGhillis. “The native fellow appeared to be uninjured but I’m sure he did not receive our invitation in a good light. Damn foolish thing to do!”

“I told the bastard to stop,” interrupted McGhillis in defense. “He threw a spear inches from where I stood. Another step and I would have been dead. What else could I do but fire a warning at the heathen?”

“You idiot!” barked Waterford. “He was testing us. If he wanted to harm us you’d be dead right now. Didn’t you listen to anything we spoke of early in this expedition? The Indians are deadly with their weapons; they do not miss what they aim for, especially something the size of a man. They can strike a monkey out of a tree a dozen feet in the air without error.”

Charlie stood wide-eyed trying to absorb meaning of the words he couldn’t understand. He knew enough about guns and how they were used against his people in the past. A game of charades and half English between him and Waterford relayed what had happened. Charlie dropped to his knees shaking his head, saying that the Indians would now consider the expedition enemies. The spear was not a threat but a warning, a calling card from a warrior in order to ferret out the expedition’s intentions. It was a symbol of their ability to be strong and defend their tribe, lest our intentions prove to be unfriendly. It would be hard if not impossible to see our violent response as anything but aggression.

“We will stay in camp the rest of the day and all day tomorrow,” announced Waterford. “It’s too risky to venture out under the circumstances; we’ll give them time to show we mean them no harm. Perhaps they will consider our retreat as a positive sign, though I can imagine what they must think of us now. We will keep a close watch now that we have played our trump card too early in the game.”

Doubled sentries were posted immediately. Charlie slipped off with his native girl enjoying his perks in this expedition. The girl’s sister, Rachel was also beginning to form a friendly alliance with Earl Tombs, who found her rather fetching under these primitive conditions. It was odd how men found the unacceptable, palatable when away from society’s eyes. They spoke often neither understanding each other, which did not seem to matter, given their non-verbal communications. Rachel accompanied him when he took his place in our perimeter. What might or might not happen when out of sight was their business as far as I was concerned. It was a forgone conclusion she had offered her affections to him, he happily accepting.

Waterford discouraged fraternization with the women because it had the potential of creating small jealousies that could lead to disharmony within the group. He did not hold this opinion for Charlie who was excluded since the women were his own kind, Indians. McGhillis had already shown signs of friction over both of the women, making several disparaging remarks about their morality, though their ways differed from ours. Earl Tombs and McGhillis were asked to avoid each other due to the conflict; Charlie, of course had no use for McGhillis or his disapproval.

 

Fear is not something I was very familiar with, at least not the kind of fear that puts your life in danger. Making enough money to eat and providing shelter was nothing when compared to the possibility of being skewered by a spear or bashed on the head with a rock. In spite of that I wanted no association with violence or the guns, heavily encouraged by those heading the expedition. Murray thought I was crazy for not packing a pistol. Our camp was becoming more like a soldier’s outpost preparing to do battle at the slightest provocation, our unseen enemy and would-be hosts aware of our vulnerability, the peace shaken by our own hand.

I whiled away my time taking a few pictures of our gun toting crew to add to the record of our tainted expedition. Posing for the pictures the club members looked anything but fierce, some overweight or foppish with their firearms in hand. This did not instill confidence. I tried to maintain a good work ethic, photographing whenever possible, the purpose of my being there. When Charlie wasn’t off with his woman, he liked to watch the things I did with my camera asking what things were for. He had a natural curiosity, which reminded me of the way children act. I showed him a photo of the group taken before we left for the Amazon. Some of the faces were familiar to him and he was amazed at how small I could make them. Explaining how a camera works was not the easiest thing in the world when the student is easily disposed to magical remedies and more attuned to whacking snakes for food. He found it unsettling to see the subjects upside down when viewed in one of my old box cameras. Alas, I made an ineffectual attempt to explain the principles of optics to a person who had never been to school, let alone grasping scientific principles.

Charlie was a likable fellow with an inquisitive nature I enjoyed. At one point I showed him how to take a photograph, which in his mind raised his status higher than the others in the group who did not know a lens from a shutter, feeling like he could catch the spirits of individuals and become more powerful than a shaman of his people. It was to no avail explaining the photos were mere images on paper not spirits. He thanked me for the power I gave him rewarding me with a snake he’d killed, a kind gesture, as food was the one commodity Indians traded.

 

 

Another Encounter

 

Two days passed without mishap, no further contact made with the indigenous natives. We stayed in camp keeping a close watch on the jungle around us, unclear what to do next. The two half cast men wanted to leave us hoping to make their way back on their own, fearing the reprisal that threatened to come. On the third day it was decided we should return to our search staying together in a larger group for protection. While the men went ahead to search, I spied a huge anaconda resting on some low branches near the water. The lighting was almost perfect so I didn’t want to miss setting up the camera before it changed or the beast decided to move on. I figured to catch up with the group a short time later, Charlie volunteering to stay with me in order to guide me when I was done.

I tried to explain to Charlie what I was doing, lighting, contrast and the like. He suddenly stood upright holding and hand up to silence me. There was nothing to be heard but we stood quietly until he indicated otherwise. I could see the snake becoming restless as the sun shifted away from his branch; I wanted to finish up before I lost the good light. It was at that moment I became aware of how really quiet it had become. The birds made no sounds and it was as if someone turned down the volume on the radio. Only the trickling of the waterway and buzz of insects made any discernable noise.

Charlie moved me towards a stand of trees putting my back against a large trunk. Later I realized it was to protect me from assault from behind. He called out loudly in a tongue I did not recognize. He repeated the words many times waiting for acknowledgement. What he got was a well-thrown spear between his legs, inches from his foot. He did not move, muttering other words in response to the spear; the words meant nothing to me. A voice answered, Charlie pointing up into the canopy, where a small brown-skinned man stood at the ready to propel another spear at us if necessary. The exchange between them was short, Charlie motioning me to step forward and stand next to him. He repeated a phrase holding his palms out to show he had no weapon, the same reason they wanted to see me in the open. Silently we were surrounded by small men blossoming from the jungle like the flowers in the trees. What had appeared to be jungle had turned into a dozen men, the tops of their heads partially shaved with spears at the ready should we move recklessly.

In that moment I began to fret over what was going to happen to me, never giving a thought to what the others in our group might be encountering. Were they also surrounded by Indians? I had not heard shots indicating conflict of any kind, though I was sure these Indians could overtake the group without ever being seen. My anaconda had seen enough and was sliding into a dark pool of water unconcerned with the human fodder littering the open area. I wasn’t sure which upset me more being captured or losing my opportunity for a good photograph.

My hands were pushed behind my back and bound, Charlie suffering the same indignation as he continued to petition our captors in some way or another. I was pretty sure negotiations of a sort were in progress despite our inability to offer anything for our release. I was worried about my camera equipment, left set up when we were captured. Looking over my shoulder I caught a glimpse of Indians carelessly carrying my tripod and camera. As a realist, this particular moment troubled me more for my life than the disposition of my equipment.

We moved through the jungle each step avoiding branches and logs in our way. The Indians maneuvered the non-trail with the ease and practice of a concert pianist on the keyboard. I was not as adept, stumbling several times up-righted by pairs of strong hands. We dodged right and then left so many times I lost track of our direction from the water and our camp. I had some vain hope of escaping and finding my way back, impossible now.

We stopped a short distance later, the leader of the Indians calling out to someone high above the treetops. There was an answer, I assumed, giving us permission to continue on our way. A few hundred yards later we came to a very small clearing with crude huts built several feet off the ground. There was one structure, a lean-to up against the jungle, ground level. Vacant hammocks were strung from pole to pole but no one was in attendance.

We were untied and forced to sit on the dirt floor of this structure guarded by two men with spears. I didn’t need to question their meaning as they stood a few feet away, their spears at the ready. Charlie spoke to the men making the men laugh; they added their own comments continuing to laugh. At this point Charlie was not communicating at all with me. His attention was focused on our captors and their assessment of us. His lack of interactions with me could be good or bad; I did not know.

“What did you say to them?” I queried, moving my hands about as if this made my request clearer.

“You, magic,” he reported. “Magic box.”

“Camera?”

“Yes,” he replied rubbing his arms to get the blood circulating in them. “I say. Chief come.”

An older man came to join the two guards, wearing a short mantle of bird feather, his head shaven like the rest, a club with feathers attached in one hand. He looked Charlie over and began to nod his head, talking to the others and pointing to us. Shaking the club his voice grew angry, his foot stomping to emphasize his displeasure. A second later his voice returned to a soft level as if he were discussing the weather, whatever made him unhappy passing as quickly as it came.

Charlie stood speaking and signing with his hands highlighting some point with a particular movement. The sentries took a step backward holding their spears ready in the event we became unruly, highly unlikely under the circumstances. The chief listened briefly, contemplating our immediate fate. His eyes became wide after awhile his club shaking in my direction. I wasn’t too happy being the subject of conversation. I felt like an accused at a trial without an attorney to plead my case, though I was sure Charlie was be an advocate of some kind. He motioned for me to get up while he explained something to the leader. The Chief grunted and motioned with his club for me to move outside the enclosure.

“Show magic,” instructed Charlie. “Camera make men on head, feet in sky. They see magic.”

My equipment had been tossed on the ground carelessly, the big frame camera dropped hard when we arrived. I hoped nothing was broken. Quickly I assembled the tripod and camera pointing it in the direction of our two captors. I liked using this camera because of the size of the negatives, large and able to capture extreme detail. The subjects were upside-down, which was exactly what Charlie wanted me to show. Charlie told the chief look through the magic box of mine, explaining how I could capture their souls and make them into a flat piece of thin bark. He couldn’t find a word for paper in the language.

The chief came over and watched me demonstrate how to look through the lens. It took some persuading by Charlie to get him to do so, since magic made these people cautious. Carefully the chief peered through the lens, snapping his head back sharply as he witnessed his warriors, wrong side up on their heads. The trees and bushes were also growing from the sky, the ground inverted. He uttered a few commands, which Charlie interpreted for me.

“Chief say make right,” managed Charlie trying to use English instead of Portuguese. He pointed at the lens cap to indicate a way to put the chief at ease.

With careful movements I clapped the cap on and motioned my hand toward the camera. The chief stared into the camera and saw nothing but black. After some exchange with Charlie the chief wanted to know what I had done with his warriors. Had they been shut away in some dark secret place? I don’t know what Charlie said to him but the chief seemed to be satisfied with his explanation.

Charlie and I were then moved to a hut at the edge of the small village, a large leaf with food brought to us, compliments of our host Malapa. Charlie explained the leader wanted to know more about my magic and chose to let us live for the time being. He might decide to kill us later, which was more information than I needed to know.

“There’s no magic to it,” I urged, afraid lying to these people would surely put an end to us. “It is a simple case of optics, Charlie.”

I’m sure Charlie didn’t understand a word of what I said but continued to scoop up the meal we were served, indicating I should eat as well. He related that we were in no immediate danger because of my camera. Their general policy was to kill intruders unless there was some reason to be cautious, magic an acceptable substitute for a weapon. I didn’t like the idea that my camera was seen as a weapon containing magic; I also didn’t like the idea of being jabbed to death by a sharp stick, and rested on the notion.

Thinking back I couldn’t imagine what sort of impression we left when one of our white men tried to shoot at them. I wondered where the rest of these white men were and what might have had happen to them. Equally concerning was what our own fate might be. No other prisoners were brought to our hut, which meant one of two things; they were all killed or managed to escape. I wanted to ask Charlie but was afraid the answer would prove to be unfavorable. I wasn’t even sure he and I could communicate, though he worked very hard at trying to be understood; gaps existed in our short exchanges.

 

I slept fitfully that night, agonizing over why I had come on the expedition in the first place. It was true; I wasn’t getting rich in Boston but I also wasn’t being sized up as a potential meal for my hosts; that was in spite of the reassurance natives no longer were cannibals. Charlie slept, curled up into a ball, peaceful, not bothered by our incarceration. I took that as a positive sign or his resignation to fate yet undecided. I guess when one stands at the gallows, he can worry about what is to take place or accept his termination hoping for a better afterlife. I’m not sure my feet were planted there, though believing in heaven might have been some small consolation.

The noise of the jungle woke me from my trouble slumber, the chattering of birds, monkeys and other creatures stirring with vigor and enthusiasm beyond my line of sight. I didn’t perceive people moving about, my ear not so attuned. A fine mist spread over the ground making it appear like we were floating in the clouds. Were it not for our situation I would have found this apparition quite pleasant and photographed it. It didn’t matter since my camera was not at hand, its present location unknown to me.

An undisclosed amount of time passed before we heard the approach of one of the Indians, an older near naked woman bearing food. Charlie said something to her, which made her smile several of her teeth gone from her grin. She jabbered on about something, which made him laugh as well.

“What did she say?” I asked.

He pointed at me and said, “You too big. Much food for two men.”

Essentially the woman thought I was much too large for living in the jungle and required more food than I could possibly kill. She also wondered whether my entire body was permanently clothed. It made no sense to her why one would choose to cover your body when it was so hot. She, herself, was naked save a waistband of woven leaves and feathers, strictly decorative, covering nothing at all. I tried to avert my eyes when her sagging breasts swayed as she presented our meal, she being completely without shame. The women of our expedition were clad modestly in comparison.

Charlie was able to converse with these people, moving his arms and hands, again to emphasize a point or two. I never did find out why he had chosen to leave the band in the first place, though his absence did not seem to matter to them. These were not his people but an offshoot of his band. Some of them, the older of the band seemed to know who he was or at least who he was connected to. Still they treated him like an outsider because he spoke my strange tongue and was part of a magic they did not understand.

The old woman pointed to the outside babbling about something. She held a finger to her eye making a sign with her arm in a wide arch away from her body. I could see she was relaying some information of import, Charlie nodding his acknowledgement.

“Others gone,” Charlie said.

“Gone back to camp?” I injected before he finished.

“Gone,” he repeated leaving me with a vague answer. “We stay here. Chief want magic; you show.”

I ventured toward the doorway. Actually it was more of an opening rather than door. I looked down again at the ground and saw a collection of boxes and supplies from our camp leading me to believe that ‘gone’ meant back down river, out of harm’s way. I considered what that meant to us, the remaining segment of a failed expedition.

During the night and early morning most of the things had been moved from the camp to the village, a few of the men with spears standing guard over the boxes and bags chasing away curious children. Charlie said it was because of the magic the items might possess. We were to show how the magic works before they decided whether to kill us or not.

The only one allowed to touch our camp equipment was their equivalent of a witch doctor, a shaman. He was dressed differently with Macaw feathers through his nose and a headdress of feathers and bones, his head sporting a lock of hair but bald otherwise. Magic was this fellow’s business and he was not about to be outdone by white outsiders or so Charlie implied. I’m not an expert at sorting out emotions but I could sense the shaman felt jealous and likely to be our worst enemy in negotiations.

As the mist burned off we were instructed to descend our perch for further scrutiny by the chief and the village shaman. The equipment they brought to the village was supposed to be used for on site film developing, a luxury Waterford insisted upon, eager to see the results of my photographic skills. He wanted immediate developing so the product might bolster morale in times of boredom. Of course there wasn’t a darkroom to do all these things but it might come in handy given our precarious situation. The woman Charlie had been having an affair with, Maria was also present, captured and bound as we were.

The shaman shaking some decorated stick in his hand howled an oath at us, neither Maria nor I understanding a word. She looked longingly at Charlie who smiled back reassuringly, perhaps knowing something we did not. They hadn’t harmed her since she was not a threat to the village yet her association with the whites made her suspect.

Charlie started the conversation his hands a blur of signs as he spoke to the chief. The message was indirectly forwarded to the shaman who stood inches away, his evil stare making us uncomfortable. I know the shaman would be just as happy to see us dead, though he has not suggested this to the chief as of yet.

“Magic good? Bad?” asked Charlie turning around to me.

I shrugged without comment, unaware of how to answer the cryptic question. He turned to the chief and said something that made him smile. The shaman stomped one foot and then the other in some kind of protest ritual, his objections noted by the chief but apparently vetoed. More shaking and incantations were cast upon us, nothing substantial according to Charlie. I was informed the chief insists we stay until he decides what to do with us as long as we do not make any bad magic. We were free to roam within the confines of the village but not beyond. The woman porter, Christian name of Maria was released in Charlie’s care, who managed to convince them she was his mate.

Maria’s English, much better than Charlie, retold the conflict back at camp. Three men were killed; the rest fled down river on hastily built rafts, no one returning for the bodies or equipment. The warriors let them go rather than chase the white men and take a chance of losing one of their own in the process. Two other men on the rafts were wounded severely, bound up enough to stem the bleeding. Maria had hidden during the melee, hoping to be overlooked. Her sister Rachel left with the men, all fleeing for their lives.

I’d like to say this bit of news cheered me but one cannot celebrate the demise of others, friend or foe. My hope of hopes was that none of the responsible men were injured or killed. It would be a shame if men like Reggie and Waterford were dispatched; they did what he could to keep things cheerful and peaceful, men not prone to violence. Unfortunately no such information was available and I grieved for them.

Much to my dismay Charlie was given a hut separate from mine, leaving me without anyone to interpret. How would I communicate with other Indians? Not being a prisoner, I couldn’t think of where to go, escape impractical. So I stayed, hoping to wait out the host leader’s decision.

My new abode was large enough to sleep in but not move significantly; the drop to the jungle floor would surely cause some damage. My photo equipment was covered with broad leaves to protect it from moisture, a request I made through Charlie before moving on to our new homes. If magic was to be our salvation, I needed to keep it safe.

 

 

Adjusting Temporarily

 

For the next two days I walked around what I saw as our village constraints, wishing not to offend the leader and most of all, the shaman who waited for the slightest transgression. Charlie joined me after a day explaining the village was geographically larger than I perceived. One direction took me to the river but not beyond. In all other directions there was little to do or see unless I was hunting, the boundaries extending deep into the jungle all much the same as any other part of this unknown territory.

It had been decided that I should learn to hunt. Unfortunately I shot film not guns, my skills as a hunter nothing to compare with the way these people were. As for spear throwing, I could barely hit a good size tree ten feet away. Through sign language I was instructed to demonstrate my abilities, though our hosts were not about to let us have spears of our own. The assembled warriors enjoyed the humor of my efforts, casting out remarks, I’m sure were rude. I did my best and almost hit the tree at one point. One warrior took me within two paces of the target and indicated I try it then. I did and gave the collective of assembled warriors something to, which they did with such delight.

I never got an accurate count of how many people lived there. I heard voices in the distance but was unable to see where they were. Perhaps it’s because their habitat blends perfectly into the trees. Most of them live a good distance from the ground, several ancient trees supporting the lightweight structures they lashed together. It’s quite a practical arrangement given the dangerous things living closer to the ground. Jaguars and snakes are the most feared among the Indians, though they seem to have a sense where their homes will not be subject to attacks.

Although Malapa hadn’t made any decisions about what to do with us, everyone treating us reasonably well. Charlie fit right in with them because he was one of them. I, on the other hand, was a novelty among these people, my height and breadth abnormal to them. A collection of women spied on me while I tried to discreetly bathe, privacy a rare thing considering the vast opportunities to be hidden. A stream close by had knee-deep pools for bathing, the fear of caiman or piranha not a concern, the anacondas hard to miss, preferring larger bodies of murky water.

One bold woman furrowing her brow walked up to me pointing at my privates, her resulting comment eliciting a peal of laughter by the assembled women. Charlie was nowhere to be found to help explain this humorous remark. Men and women walked about with their private parts uncovered; so I failed to see the fascination with mine. They showed no concern for their nudity, a condition, which is beginning to rub off on me. I rarely wear my shirt anymore and cavort around in my drawers much of the time, a conservative effort at modesty when compared to the rest.

Charlie and his woman seem to be getting on quite well it would seem. The leader of the band performed a ceremony of sorts over the two. Charlie informs me that she belongs to him now and they have to denounce the ways of the white man’s religion. For him it isn’t a difficult thing to do since he never accepted Jesus. The concept of one God was ridiculous to him when there were so many others in obvious attendance; turtles, snakes and the jaguar were among those worshiped.

Whether by design or accident my enclosure is closer to the ground than the others creating an opportunity for Indians in the band to study me. The men mimic the way I throw a spear and babble at me in jest. I don’t mind since my safety is not threatened by their jocularity only my pride which is less important than the skin. The women spend more time sizing me up like a prize bull, shaking their heads with small disagreements among them. I can tell by their expressions, some of the women don’t find me very alluring while others are curious about the man with white fish skin.

I’ve managed to take some photographs and develop them with the few supplies I still had. There is no way to print them but I show them to the chief who is frightened by the likeness in the negative form. Charlie tells me he thinks I have stolen the subject’s shadow. I can see their point since the black and white is reversed. The chief still cannot fathom the upside down image through my lens, yet he allows the pictures to be taken because he believes there is power in them. They are cautious not to fool with the magic of others, leaving me to work undisturbed.

My life was to change at the whim of the chief and others of the band. A visit from Charlie brought on some interesting mandates.

“Tonight, take woman,” supplied Charlie one afternoon.

“What do you mean?” I returned.

“Pick woman. Chief give,” Charlie managed with his rough interpretation in English. “All man,” he added moving his hand over the village. “Have woman. Good!”

I didn’t grasp what he was talking about and made every attempt to define his meaning. After some pantomime I saw what he was proposing or at least what the leader had decided was in my best interest. The chief in his infinite wisdom felt I was old enough to have a wife or even two, given my magic status. There was less discontent among the men when they regularly shared the pleasures of a woman. And if I was lucky she might give me a child, though there was some doubt that a white giant could produce a child, like breeding unlike species. Quickly I figured out, being around long enough to be a father meant I was not expected to leave for at least nine months, a simple calculation, maybe longer.

I objected to this barbaric attempt to assign me to a woman for the purpose of procreation and carnal pleasure. I was a Christian man with serious views about morale wantonness. Charlie made it clear there was no way for me to refuse; the chief had decided and that was that. We only lived an undisturbed existence because the chief saw us as potentially useful. His decree was law, challenge that, and our usefulness might become null and void.

 

 

clematis

 

My thoughts drifted back to Boston and Sylvia Masterson. How cold it must be in Boston, how far away. Here it was so different; the heat of the tropics sucked my brain dry from what it used to be. I functioned on a base level; survival and surprise the two elements presented in every waking hour. There was only now and the new prospect of a native girl as my wife or concubine, an arrangement dictated by the chief. There was a time when I thought of marriage, those many years back in Boston. Prohibition was around when I was young, a little too young to enjoy the loose morals and hard drinking of my elders.

I must admit my first intimate encounter with someone of the opposite sex was done on a dare. Chip Henderson, my best friend said I was too chicken to go all the way with a woman. At sixteen I was, in fact, scared to death of the prospect. But I couldn’t let him get away with blurting it out in front of all my pals, who all bragged and lied about their sexual prowess, each detailing imagined alliances with certain girls we knew. No doubt they were lies but true or false, there was no way of telling. So I scraped together every nickel and dime I had planning to secure the services of a professional prostitute, a woman of the night, a fallen angel. I preferred that latter title instead of whore, which is such an insensitive word when speaking of the woman you purported to copulate with.

Following my financial accumulations I needed to get me to a house of ill repute, where my virginity would be put to the test. Chip and I knew of one such place not far from Mulberry Street. My mother warned me to stay clear of that area; undesirable people frequented the place, filled with liquor and other immoral diversions. Immoral or not a dare was a dare, and what better place to secure your niche in male society than to engage in a practice of making a man out of a boy, though I found out it took more as I matured.

We cased the place deciding the best time for me to dispose of my virginity. Now that I think of it, I don’t know why I didn’t counter challenge Chip for getting me into to this. Several of the women of the house were attractive enough only a few years older than myself, though many a lot older than I expected. The best looking one, a plump brunette had to be near twenty-five, another blonde just under thirty. My keen observation gave me the distinct feeling the men entering didn’t care about their ages. In business it was called supply and demand.

I had to pick a time when the house wasn’t too busy, the prospect of waiting in the den disagreeable. I’d hate to run into someone I knew; though I expect none of my family’s friends would consider such a thing. Was I being so wicked as to sample the favors of a female stranger? Will my soul rot in hell for eternity, the Devil prodding me with his pitchfork? If I’m found out will I be expelled from my house; my name expunged from the family bible? Was I to endure a lifetime with a tin cup my only means of support?

I donned my best suit and converted my change to paper money. I didn’t want to look like some kid emptying a handful of coins on the table even though it was the truth. Chip followed me to the house of moral depravity maintaining surveillance from across the street. Nervously I lifted my foot to the first treadle of the stairway to manhood, counting each step as I attempted to calm my shaky nerves. There were thirteen if you counted the porch, an omen or coincidence? I meant to be quiet about it but each step creaked enough to wake the dead, announcing my contemplated sin to all within earshot.

In the shadows of the porch an older woman sat knitting. I couldn’t see her from below but was startled by the clicking of her needles once I arrived at the top. She looked up at me and smiled.

“Are you our paper delivery boy?” she asked.

I cleared my throat deepening my voice to answer.

“No madam,” I croaked out. “I’m a customer.”

She tilted her head to the side while giving me the once over. I should have polished my shoes, an after thought. Setting her knitting aside she walked over to me, one hand on her hip.

“A little young?” she asked.

“I assure you I do this all the time,” I returned my mind screaming for the right thing to say. “I’m visiting from somewhere else.”

“Somewhere?” she questioned. “And where would that be?”

“Uh, somewhere close,” I managed, trying to think. “Buffalo! Yeah, it’s Buffalo.”

She sniggered.

“And I suppose you have the funds necessary?” she added.

“Indeed!” I fired back without hesitation.

“Well, well, it would seem I am taking up your valuable time, sir,” she added crossing her arms over her ample bosom. “Come right in and we will see if we can accommodate your particular tastes.”

I wasn’t sure what I expected. The house was no different than a lot of the other houses in the area. The drawing room had several comfortable looking chairs and sofas. A large Persian carpet filled the middle of the floor with heavy velour drapes almost shutting out the light from outside. Stairs leading up were covered with plush carpeting brass rods holding it in place. A statue of a naked woman stood against the wall her hand raised in some gesture I could not discern.

“Ladies!” the woman called out. “We have a guest. From Buffalo, I am told. Let us not keep him waiting.”

I could hear the shuffling of feet from above floors and muted voices. Shortly afterwards three women descended the stairs giving me the eye. I assumed it wasn’t necessary to woo them since the exchange of money was the only requirement. The women filed into the drawing room taking a seat or standing as seductively as they might. Two more women followed the first three a minute later; one was wearing nothing but a corset and stockings. It was impossible not to stare.

Right off I decided I would not choose either of the older women. It gave me a funny feeling in my stomach that they were closer to my mother’s age, even if they appeared to be several years her junior. Choosing was going to be difficult since all of them had the attributes I sought; they were all females. At this point I wasn’t sure if I should jump for joy or run like the wind. It might not be too late to escape damnation.

“While you are making up your mind why don’t we dispense with the financial arrangements first,” suggested the older woman. Discreetly she whispered the price in my ear, smiling in retreat.

“Really, that much?” I said in amazement.

“My ladies have many hidden talents, sir,” she replied pouting. “You wouldn’t want to insult them, would you?”

There was no turning back at this point. It was going to cost the entire amount I saved. Chip’s scant research had not extended to the price of passion. I handed over the money pretending it was inconsequential. I eliminated the two older women for the reason stated above; they were pretty enough but Oedipus I am not. Of the three women, one was too tall, taller than I, and another not as pretty as the remaining one. The last girl had long black hair and the whitest skin I’ve ever seen, like pure cream from a pitcher. She also appeared to be very young, which was fine with me. I pointed her out.

“Veronica! What an excellent choice,” said the older woman. “She’s rather new here but very popular. I think you will enjoy being entertained by her.”

Entertained? Maybe I hadn’t made myself clear. I thought we were going to have sex; I expected to be more than entertained given the price paid. Veronica slipped past me ascending the staircase to paradise. I followed behind matching her step for step hoping I knew what to do when the time came. I could hear faint laughter from the women left behind. If they were laughing at me it didn’t matter. I was about to embark on the adventure rocketing me from boyhood to manhood, morality be damned.

Without much preamble the encounter lasted a few short minutes, Veronica’s entertainment abilities were well honed, hence her popularity. I believe I may have even spoken a few words to her though I can’t remember what they might have been. I remember saying she was beautiful; the rest was a quick blur. I wondered if there was a time limit on immorality. Surely something so quick cannot be immoral; hell would surely demand something of greater length. No matter how brief, Veronica launched me into manhood and a temporary poverty. I found the experience intensely pleasurable but a bit rich for my blood. It would be sometime later before I indulged in such an activity again.

During my college years I met Miranda, Chip’s visiting cousin from Georgia. I found it charming the way she spoke, all southern like. She in turn found my Boston accent amusing even though I was unaware I had one. To prove her point she repeated the words she felt set me aside from the rest of the country. I was smitten and she felt a similar attraction.

Her stay was only for a month long, too short for my liking. I had a part time job at a grocery, which barely paid for my expenses and school. I wanted her to stay and be with me. She might have if it hadn’t been for her parents who were sending her to England for educational enlightenment. She had relatives living there and finishing schools designed for young women. At the time I couldn’t see the need for finishing what was already perfect. Miranda left, promising to write as often as she could. Broke and in no position to support a wife I gave her the foil band from a cigar wrapper, promising to wait for her return.

The fairytale ended in less than a year later when Chip informed me of Miranda’s engagement to some rich Englishman, a duke or something. Her letters stopped coming just before then. My studies over, it looked like the best time to see the world, unencumbered with the responsibility of a wife. Perhaps I’d forget her along the way, the smell of her hair the twinkle in her blue eyes, the shape of her body not unlike my lady of the evening.

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